"Buddhas of the three worlds gobbled up in one mouthful." Bruce Coats is translating the Japanese inscription on "Frog and Snail," a painting by Zen master Gibon Sengai. The "three worlds" are the past, present and future, he says. "Zen often talks about the oneness of all things. The inscription is saying all time can be eaten in one mouthful."
As for the image, "it's wonderful," he says. "Here we have the frog looking at the snail, about to eat it. The shape of the frog is repeated upside down in the snail in a sort of yin yang arrangement. And the frog seems to be sitting with his hands in meditation."
The ink-on-paper work is one of about 40 scrolls in "Zen! Japanese Paintings From the Sanso Collection," opening this weekend and continuing to Dec. 6. at Scripps College’s Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery in Claremont.
"Frog and Snail" is also a favorite painting of the late Peter F. Drucker, known as the father of modern management. The exhibition -- drawn from a private holding -- was organized by Coats, a Scripps professor, in conjunction with the Drucker Centennial, a series of events sponsored by Claremont Graduate University, home of a management school and think tank named for Drucker.
A writer and consultant who was born in Vienna and educated in Austria and England, Drucker gained international fame in his field. His relatively little known passion for Japanese art began in 1934, when he encountered a traveling show of Japanese paintings instead of the expected British works at the Royal Academy in London.
"I fell in love," he told me in a 1994 interview. "One can't explain why one falls in love. I fell in love, period."
Opportunities to study Japanese art came sporadically, but in the 1940s, while working in Washington, D.C., he spent many lunch hours doing research on Japanese ink paintings at the Freer Gallery of Art. Over time, he developed a strong affinity for imaginary landscapes and the work of Zen masters.
The Scripps exhibition explores how artists put Zen ideas into visual form with spare but powerful authority. The landscapes, portraits and animal images made from the 14th to the 19th centuries are easy to appreciate for their artistry, but they also raise questions.
"Kensu With Shrimp," a 15th century work by Yogetsu, portrays a monk dangling a shrimp in front of his face, as if deciding what to do with it.
"It's a perplexing situation," Coats says. "If you are a Zen monk, you are not supposed to eat meat. You are not supposed to kill living things. But if you have attained enlightenment and realized the oneness of all things, then why do you have a rule saying you can't eat meat? If you can't kill this sentient being, you have already made a distinction between yourself and the sentient being, so you have lost the oneness of things. It's a visual conundrum. These are paintings that should jar you in some way. That's part of the whole Zen experience."